Hello, Korean Movie lovers. Welcome! There are not that many of you out there, which I’m trying to do something about since I write about the stuff you guys or girls alike. Need more of you to earn some dough. Leaving pipe dreams aside, I appreciate you a few more.
You lovely few!
This is Krish, with a new Korean War Comedy movie starring Sol Kyung-Gu of the Korean movie “My Dictator” (2014) and Yeo Jin-Gu of the Korean drama “Orange Marmalade” (2015). Its English title is “The Long Way Home” (2015), while the Korean title can be translated as the “Western Front.” It is another case of the English title for a Korean movie being far more in tune with the movie’s themes than the actual Korean one.
“Western Front” barely has anything to do with the movie!
In any case, tanks anyone?
I will only have one if it comes with some idiots.
The outcome of the movie-making process involves many complicated variables. Some are more obvious. Others are more opaque. There are a lot of things that could go wrong. Even “good” directors with a “good” cast and “good” material to work with can make movies that don’t land as intended. So, it is not easy to know how a movie will turn out before the film’s final cut gets put in the can.
As a person who sees many movies, I have gotten used to this being the way it is and even learned to appreciate the “less than perfectly concocted” movies for what they have and not ponder too much on what they missed. However, there are still movies that miss the mark by only a few inches that I feel that the world missed out on getting a great movie and had to settle for just an okay one. “The Long Way Home /서부전선” (2015) is one of those movies.
Two idiots meet on the battlefield… with a tank between them.
It should be comedy gold!
I’ll elaborate more on the two idiots and a tank bit.
“The Long Way Home /서부전선” (2015), which is a comedy, is set in the waning days of the Korean war. Yes, that Korean war where the North and South Koreans fought from 1950 to 1953. At the time, the leader of the North was the grandfather of the villain from “The Interview” (2014).
However, it is not a grand war movie. “The Long Way Home” has more in common with Series 4 of the British TV comedy “Blackadder Goes Forth” (1989) than war movies like “Saving Private Ryan” (1998). “The Long Way Home” is, at its core, a tiny scope movie with basically only 2 central characters, one from each side, who are either inside a tank or around a tank for most of the movie. Thus, it has that “TV Bottle show” feel to it.
But one with a decent budget!
On the south side, we have Sol Kyung-gu’s character, who is a dispatch runner in his late 30s entrusted with delivering a secret document to a front line base. And, following the basic rules of all comedies, he loses that secret document!
Waka Waka Waka!
On the Northside, you have Yeo Jin-Gu’s character in a tank. In his late teens, he is an assistant gunner that ends up alone with his tank thanks to a very comically CGI-ed mustang fighter bomber that killed his crew.
It will return for an encore performance later on in the movie as it defies the rules of physics and proper CGI animation. The movie is that kind of movie.
*End of Spoilers*
The two characters meet in the wilderness between the lines when Yeo Jin-Gu stumbles upon the secret document and rides north in his tank with Sol Kyung-Gu following the tank’s exhaust fumes intend on retrieving his lost charge. The movie’s remaining bulk is basically a platform for comedy sketches in which the control of the situation floats from one character to another and again. At the same time, the tank basically traverses the same path up and down. When Sol Kyung-Gu is in control, the tank heads south. It heads north when Yeo Jin-Gu is in control.
Ready to laugh?
As a movie, “The Long Way Home /서부전선” (2015) is light on plot. It is just two guys stuck in a tank together, trying to one-up each other until they bond and get all lovey-dovey.
Kumbaya my lord
However, there are, let’s say, themes following throughout the movie.
First, the movie is about common people just trying to get home. Most of the characters, including the two leads, are just common grunts who joined the war because of circumstances beyond their control. No one is in it for glory or even ideology.
Second, there is only home and family. There is no ideology. The Korean War is the first spark of the cold war. So, it is tough to avoid the discussion of ideology. However, “The Long Way Home” stops this discussion in its tracks using the elegant but basic argument of “F**k ideology! You came here to fight first. Get out!” None of the lead characters are intelligent enough to understand the propaganda delivered by their own sides.
Third, the movie really goes hard with the “the virtue of the naïve but innocent peasants” concept as those are basically all the people the two idiots meet on their journey in the tank. It creates somewhat of an idyllic portrait of the peasants who focus on farming and their simple but also comical daily lives even amongst the war’s carnage.
Fourth, the movie shows the cowardice tendency inherent in Korean culture. For a long time, most Koreans were mere peasants, and more than 30% of the population were slaves. In this oppressive environment, we picked up bad habits to survive. One of them is the shameless reaction to power. When we do not have power, we naturally grovel to those who have power. Once we get power, we shamelessly abuse power and expect others to grovel.
As the power dynamic oscillates between the two lead characters, the characters’ behaviors keep shifting from pompous to groveling and reverse. For the Koreans watching this shift, there is nothing funnier since we do that all the time.
The truth can be so funny!
Fifth, the lead characters are more disconcerted by their own side than the enemy. For the lead characters, merely surviving the war is not their ultimate motivation. It is easier to survive if one is a coward and an opportunist to boot. The two are both. They are just common folk, after all. They are worried that their own sides will not let them go back home if they find out they are cowards and opportunists. Thus, the whole movie and the chase for the “secret document” McGuffin is just the two leads trying to overcompensate.
Finally, the movie is about folly over-compensating. Yes, there is the whole “we are all the same people” theme. There is the “we need to find common ground” theme. There is the “we need to communicate” theme. But the movie does not end when the two bonds together. The movie rolls towards its end because someone got a little greedy and over-compensated more than required to get home.
The 2 Levels of Comedy
Contrary to common opinion, Comedies are difficult to pull off. Hitting the right tone and nailing the jokes are essential requirements that make comedies even more unforgiving than dramas. The easiest form of comedy is the “gag a minute” ones in which you throw a bunch of gags at a wall a see what sticks. However, even those fail more than not. It is so difficult to make a great comedy feature film.
The ultimate problem with “The Long Way Home /서부전선” (2015) is that it is merely amusing than being outright funny. There is no worse place to be for a comedy. Well, there is totally sucking but let’s push the outcome to the side. So, why is this movie not funny?
Well, it is a little complicated…
Comedy Level 1
This movie is set up for comedy to work on two different levels. On the lower level, the movie goes for the “Buster Keaton” style physical slapstick comedy. The movie sets up comedy bits and set pieces in which you have the characters reacting to situations in ways that keep increasing in scope and ludicrously but with the elegance of silent movies.
And I would have to say that these comedy bits are well-conceived on paper. They are rather creative. Considering that Chun Sung-Il, the first time director and writer of this movie, is a veteran comedy feature writer, this should not be a surprise. His works include “My Girlfriend is an Agent” (2009) and “The Pirates” (2014). You can see that he is an avid pupil of elaborate Hollywood action-comedy set-piece movies which have gone out of style a decade or so ago in the states.
In execution, there are some issues. Before anything, the cast is good. While he has been doing more serious roles recently, Sol Kyung-Gu has proven he has good comedic delivery. His last comedy movie was “The Spy: Undercover Operation” (2013), which was a shameless “True Lies” (1994) rip off. So, I was not surprised by his performance in “The Long Way Home /서부전선” (2015). He is good. The person who surprised me was Yeo Jin-Gu!
Yeo Jin-Gu, who is 18 years old, has mostly done Korean dramas.
I feel old.
And I was not impressed. Going into the movie, I didn’t have much faith in his comedic abilities as the trailers make him look bad. So, it was a rather welcome surprise when you see that the kid has some comedic chops. I wouldn’t say he is great, but he works well off Sol Kyung-Gu and can hit the comedic beats most of the time.
Okay, I’ve just complimented the cast.
So, let’s talk about what they had no hands in
The actual execution of the rather creative comedic set pieces doesn’t hit their marks perfectly. It is as if the delivery is a half-second too late. The direction is not able to keep up and inject enough energy into the set pieces. It is part of the editing and part of the cinematography. Both are nowhere near terrible but just an inch lacking.
Comedy Level 2
I said that this movie is set up for comedy to work on two different levels. I just went over the lower level. On a higher level, it goes for Roberto Benigni’s “Life Is Beautiful” (1997) style of nesting physical comedy within a more human drama environment. With this style, the contrast creates more emotional depth to the comedy.
The movie wants to be a movie about humans that will make you feel the “feels.”
It is so Korean!
It will make you cry while you are laughing!
This is a rather ambitious approach, as managing the contrast in tones is very difficult. Ultimately “The Long Way Home /서부전선” (2015) fails at managing this contrast. For the slapstick comedy to work, you have to dumb down the characters to almost “Dumb & Dumber” (1994) levels to make the situations’ absurdity make sense. Also, the world of the movie has to be very comedic. Hence, the law of physic defying actions and stuff.
However, this movie not only wants you to pee your pants from laughing too much but also cry your heart out. For this to work, the characters need to be human and not just test dummies that can take a crash. This comes into conflict with the lower level comedy as it is tough for outrageous comedy to deliver honest sincerity.
As a result of trying to balance two different objectives, “The Long Way Home /서부전선” (2015) gets lost between the two levels of comedy. To be more human, the characters are given more smarts to resemble an actual human being but not enough, which, in turn, makes their comedic set pieces overly ridiculous and less believable.
This conflict is also reflected in the movie’s world, which surrounds the bubble the characters are in. Sometimes we are shown a “drama” world and other times we get a “comedy” world. While it is subtle, the effect of the contrasting tones is significant.
At the End
“The Long Way Home /서부전선” (2015) has a good cast, and creative script, and ambition. The problem is the director. First, he is not experienced enough to handle realizing what he wrote on the page. Second, he does not totally understand what makes the Hollywood action-adventure movies he wants to recreate work. It is simple. It is ambition tempered by the simplicity of the format. If you are unable to be simple, the balance of the genre is ruined.
What can I say more about this movie?
It is interesting. It is amusing. It also makes you feel the “feels” sometimes, especially if you are the general Korean movie-going audience. What it is not is outright funny! For a comedy movie, this is a great sin. Thus, “The Long Way Home /서부전선” (2015) ends up being just an okay movie, which is a shame.
The climb to greatness is steep for Comedy movies.
I will give “The Long Way Home /서부전선” (2015) a B- grade.
Score: B- or 6/10